When Sue Wicks was playing for the New York Liberty in the WNBA's early years, she said gay and lesbian fans were always a major portion of the team's audience.
"The joke was that the gay pride parade ended at Madison Square Garden for the game," Wicks said.
This year, the league is acknowledging that fan base with a first-ever multi-media campaign: WNBA Pride, Presented by COVERGIRL. Nine teams are hosting a pride-themed game including the Chicago Sky, whose match up against the Shock on ESPN2 Sunday will be the first nationally-televised such game in professional sports.
Wicks, who came out before her retirement in 2002 when a reporter asked her if she was a lesbian, called the WNBA's pride campaign "fantastic."
"There have always been gay and lesbian fans at WNBA games," she said. "It's nice for fans of the community to be recoginzed for their support."
The pride campaign has also included the WNBA's participation at the Provincetown Memorial Day Weekend and Women of Color Weekend festivals, team participation in LGBT pride festivals and parades, advertising with lesbian-targeted outlets and publications, and selling a specially-designed WNBA pride T-shirt, available on the league website. Profits of sales from the shirt go to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - a longtime partner of the league.
WNBA President Laurel Richie said the pride platform has been well-received by fans.
"The response has been terrific," she said. "We measure that by kind notes, the sales of the T-shirt - which has been a best seller across the league, and the traffic to our website. It's been delightful in arenas to see fans wearing the T-shirts and to hear the verbal response."
The WNBA is the first professional sports league to unveil an LGBT platform, and that is due to the diversity of its fans, according to Richie.
"We believe the WNBA audience is the most diverse audience in all of professional sports," she said. "It's a microcosm of the U.S., consisting of all ages, ethic backgrounds, young people, older people, families. The fans are united by their love and appreciation of the game."
This past off-season, Richie said league officials decided to add a grassroots component to their outreach to the gay community. They hired an organization that specializes in studying the LGBT community to assess the WNBA's audience. A study revealed that 21 percent of lesbians have been to a WNBA game, and 25 percent have watched a game on television. From that, the league was able to formulate a broad-based "pride platform," with a goal of celebrating acceptance and inclusion.
"At some team's pride nights, there are after-game panels on bias and bullying," Richie said.
Some fans have criticized the WNBA in the past for what they said was ignoring their gay and lesbian fan base. Richie the WNBA has long recognized the presence of its LGBT fans, and has supported the community for years.
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we're proud of what we've done together, and across the league," Richie said.
Wicks said being out wasn't an issue when she was younger, because she played most of her career overseas in Europe, and was autonomous.
"I never had to worry about losing a sponsorship," she said.
Though Wicks was accepted by her family as gay at a young age, she recognized the struggle others had with being out. The WNBA's pride campaign, she said, represents progress.
"We've come a long way - it's tremendous," Wicks said. "It's mainstream now, and for young people, it's nothing to be gay."
"Maybe someday we'll get to a point where we're not marketing to that community as separate. But this is a great step."
Richie said the pride campaign will be ongoing.
"The main reason it will continue is that it's something we need to be doing," she said.